By Mike Hughes
Back in his University of Michigan days, Bert Stratton was heavily into roots music.
"We were so into authenticity," Stratton recalled. "If you weren't from Mississippi, you didn't count."
Much later, he would find his own roots. The result is the Yiddishe Cup Klezmer Band, which today reaches the Wharton Center.
Klezmer is loosely referred to as "Jewish jazz." It goes back to the Middle Ages, said Julia Olin, who is the music curator for the National Folk Festival.
In Eastern Europe, Olin wrote, klezmer was weaved from fragments of cantorial melody, folk tunes, Yiddish poetry and more. "I'm sure it had a lot of different regional flavors to it."
By the 1880s, klezmer prevailed at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Then it moved to the United States; it has really mixed with American jazz and popular music, Olin said.
It became a little of everything. Like other forms of jazz or folk, klezmer can change from band to band - or from song to song.
Eventually, it became part of the roots revival that spread in the 1970s. By then, Stratton was back home in Cleveland, discovering Mickey Katz.
"He's like the Louis Armstrong of klezmer," Stratton said. "He's funny, he plays great music - and furthermore, he's from Cleveland."
Stratton also discovered Klezmorin, a group of young musicians who did what they felt like. "They would be playing a bar mitzvah, and then they would never be hired by those people again."
He said that approvingly. Stratton isn't tied to the old world.
"I grew up in a very Americanized, very assimilated Jewish home," he said. "And I never heard the (klezmer) music."
Instead, he heard the rhythms of the 1960s, mixed with Ann Arbor rebellion. "Woodstock was too commercial for us," he said.
That's why Stratton and two others created the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969. It was a great pastime or an English major who also won two Hopwood Awards for creative writing.
Eventually, Stratton returned to Cleveland and discovered klezmer. "It's sort of emotional, sort of gut-wrenching," he said.
Or it can be whatever else the musicians desire.
At this summer's National Folk Festival in East Lansing, the Hot Kugel Klezmer Band offered bits of everything. Its leader, Jinny Marsh, is a cabaret singer; her musicians range from an ancient trombonist (who had played at the Eisenhower inauguration) to a handsome young man (fresh from Russia) who did heart-breaking fiddle solos.
Other bands cover a broad range. A prime example is the New Orleans Klezmer All-Star Band, which includes Okemos High grad Rob Wagner. "That must be the only klezmer band that plays rock 'n' roll clubs," Stratton said.
His own band has six men, with Stratton on clarinet. "Our sound is more of a brassy sound," he said.
It also puts emphasis on humor. "We do a lot of Borscht Belt stuff," Stratton said.
Alongside the serious songs, there's room for such tunes as "Meshugene Mambo" or Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song." It can all fit into the almost-limitless world of klezmer.
Contact Mike Hughes at 377-1156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.